Nellie Forbush (Kelli O’Hara) and the navy nurses sing “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair” in the Lincoln Center revival of “South Pacific”

On one of our first dates, I took Pat, now my wife, to see a major production of South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Betsy Palmer played Nellie Forbush and William Chapman played Emile de Becque. Neither of us had ever seen the show on stage, but both of us had seen the 1958 film with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi (with Giorgio Tozzi dubbing Brazzi’s songs), and both of us owned the cast albums from that film and from the original Broadway production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.

JAMES MINCHENER

The musical play, which first appeared in 1949, was based on James Minchener’s 1947 book, Tales of the South Pacific. This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a collection of loosely connected stories based on Michener’s experiences as a Navy officer on the island of Espiritu Santo. I find it an absorbing book because of its ability to transport the reader into the unique environment of the Pacific Islands during that war.

Rodgers and Hammerstein combined three of Michener’s stories to create the musical play, and they determined to deal with two instances in which romantic liaisons were disrupted by racial prejudice. One of those situations arises when Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, whose previous life experience was confined to Little Rock, Arkansas, falls in love with French planter Emile de Becque but discovers that he had previously lived and had children with a Polynesian woman. For reasons that she herself cannot articulate, Nellie is repulsed by the idea, and she undergoes a wrenching internal struggle.

EZIO PINZA and MARY MARTIN

The other conflict involves a Marine lieutenant, Joe Cable, who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl who is not yet an adult, but refuses to marry the girl because of the color of her skin. In a scene in which De Becque and Cable discuss their contradictory crises, De Becque declares that he does not believe that racial prejudice is inborn, and Cable punctuates that idea with a lyric: “You have to be taught to hate and fear / You have to be taught from year to year / It has to be drummed in your dear little ear / You have to be carefully taught … to hate all the people your relatives hate.”

This lyric brought opprobrium down on Rodgers and Hammerstein from some quarters in the United States. Cable’s song was described as not only indecent, because by implication it encouraged interracial sex and — God forbid! — breeding, but that it was pro-communist because who but a communist would carry egalitarianism so far? Some Georgia politicians actually tried to stifle the song through legislation. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s position was that the song was about what the play was about and that, even if it sank the show, the song would stay.

RICHARD RODGERS and OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN

We saw the recent revival of South Pacific at the Lincoln Center twice, and this past weekend, we had the opportunity to see it again in a production at the non-profit Ritz Theatre in Haddon Township, New Jersey. One of the impediments to mounting this show is that it requires an outstanding cast and company; it can’t be faked. The Ritz was up to that challenge in every respect. In fact, Pat and I agreed that Anabelle Garcia was the best Nellie Forbush we had ever seen.

South Pacific was written shortly after World War II. The original production won a Pulitzer Prize and ten Tony Awards. In fact, sixty-two years later, it is still the only musical to win all four Tony Awards for acting.

What is striking about South Pacific is that although it is necessarily performed entirely in the milieu of the 1940s, it does not get old. Racism is still a serious issue in the United States, and some of the criticism directed at this show for addressing that issue sounds disturbingly like rhetoric we can still hear today.

On the cover of Time

Shirley Booth‘s biographer, Jim Manago, noted an error in my recent post about the movie “Summertime,” which starred Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi. “Summertime” was based on Arthur Laurents’ Broadway play, “The Time of the Cuckoo,” in which Booth played the part that Hepburn later played on the screen. I had incorrectly given the character’s name as Jane Hudson – the name used in “Summertime” – but Manago, whose book is “Love is the Reason for it All,” noted the character was called Leona Samish on the stage. I corrected it in the post.

I interviewed Shirley Booth many years ago; it was one of the few occasions in which I approached the subject of an interview with a sense of awe. By the time of I met her, Booth had established herself as one of the most highly honored actresses in American entertainment — on the stage, on film, and in radio and television – and had won multiple awards. Later generations have largely forgotten her, but she was a serious, versatile artist.

SHIRLEY BOOTH

Her favorite role in a long career, she told me, was Lola Delaney in the Broadway drama, “Come Back, Little Sheba” by William Inge.  This is the story of a middle-aged couple whose  marriage and whose lives in general are unfulfilled and unhappy. Shirley Booth had already won a Tony as best supporting actress for “Good Bye, My Fancy” in 1948, and she won the best-actress Tony for “Come Back, Little Sheba” in 1950. In 1952, she appeared in the film version of Inge’s play, and she won the Oscar for best dramatic actress. She won her third Tony for “Time of the Cuckoo,” again being named best actress in a leading role. She also won two Emmys as best actress in a comedy role for the TV series “Hazel,” which had its first run from 1961-1965 and was seen in syndication for many years afterwards. People who know Dolly Gallagher Levi only from the musical performances of Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand and wonder if that’s really what Thornton Wilder had on his mind, should get their hands on the 1952 film “The Matchmaker” in which Shirley Booth played the part, which was originated on Broadway by Ruth Gordon.

I met Shirley Booth in 1971 when she was appearing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Paul Osborn’s 1930 play, “The  Vinegar Tree.”

On the cover of TV Guide during the run of her second TV series, "A Touch of Grace."

She was a little more formal than I am used to, but she was also thoughtful and witty.

I sought her input one a favorite subject of mine — the interaction between performers and live audiences, particularly the way the audience reaction affects the performer on stage. Ms. Booth told me she thought inexperienced actors sometimes put too much pressure on themselves if they feel that the audience isn’t reacting as expected.

“I say, ‘They’re not getting this; let’s slow down.’ I think you should beguile them instead of dazzling them.”

And when guile doesn’t work, she said: “All right. If they don’t want to have a good time, let’s have such a good time among ourselves that they’ll be sorry they didn’t come.”

Shirley Booth was an important figure in American entertainment and an exceptionally talented performer. Not everyone has forgotten. To visit a blog devoted to Shirley Booth, CLICK HERE.

Shirley Booth, Don DeFore, and Whitney Blake in a publicity shot for "Hazel."